What's really going on in Pinal Co.'s embattled "no man's land?"

What's really going on in Pinal Co.'s embattled "no man's land?"

CREATED Jun 30, 2011

Reporter: Joel Waldman
Web Producer: Brian Pryor and Forrest Carr

PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - Mixed messages.  That's what some believe the Bureau of Land Management is sending with not one or two, but three different signs warning of some level of danger lurking in the Sonoran Desert.  It's danger beyond what normally exists in nature.

Earlier this year BLM posted signs in the area discouraging travel, warning that visitors to the area could encounter armed drug smugglers at any time.  Governor Jan Brewer was among the Republican politicians who pointed to those signs as evidence that the federal government had given up trying to secure the border.   Those claims helped re-elect her.

In the middle of the controversy, a few weeks ago BLM suddenly announced that it was posting new "informational" signs, claiming that cartel activity was down.

Some who live in the area don't see it that way.

Just south of a "wrong way" sign in the desert lives a group of citizens who feel the handling of border security and illegal immigration in the U.S. is indeed going the wrong way.  Jay Stewart, a local resident, told KGUN9's Joel Waldman about hearing smugglers every night near his home. 

"I hadn't seen you in probably two months, and I asked you if anything changed and you laughed at me. How come?" Waldman asked Stewart.

"Stuff's going on every day, well, every night," Stewart replied.  "Stuff comes through the desert and you can hear it. The trucks with no lights, you may know the general direction they are coming from, but you can't see it.  It's just too dark."

Stewart said the desert has become a highway for drug and human smuggling, and that he has the evidence to prove it.  Every night, Stewart's neighbor captures wildlife on a night vision camera mounted near a watering hole.   The black and white images have captured mountain lions and a mule deer grabbing a quick drink in the dry desert. 

But those are not the only ones competing for the water.  Photos taken from the watering hole camera showed up to ten people -- presumably, illegal border crossers and their guides -- drinking in the middle of the night.

Other visitors to the area said they don't see drug or human smugglers and they feel that it's not a big deal.  When 9 On Your Side encountered Sarah Roberts and her husband heading to a camping trip in the Sonoran National Monument, Waldman asked them about their feelings on the media's coverage of illegal immigration in Southern Arizona. 

"Yes, I do believe it's media hype," Roberts said. "I think it's a lot of manipulation to create fear, to put fear in people's minds and hearts."

But Stewart disagreed with Roberts' opinion.  "Well, she lives in Tucson.  She doesn't come out here very often, and honestly it has become violent in the last two years."

Sheriff Paul Babeu agrees with that sentiment, and has campaigned hard for action.  According to Babeu, examples of the violence are the recent shooting of Pinal County Sheriff's Deputy Louie Puroll, the murder of two illegal immigrants suspected of stealing drugs from cartels, and numerous high speed pursuits, with a high of 64 chases in one month.

Shortly after the Puroll shooting, Homeland Security issued a confidential law enforcement advisory warning that a drug cartel had hatched plans to send armed assassins into the same area.  When the memo later became public, Homeland Security disavowed it.

Earlier this year 9 On Your Side found official BLM signs in the area warning, "DANGER, PUBLIC WARNING. TRAVEL NOT RECOMMENDED."  After BLM announced it was changing those signs, KGUN9 went back and checked again.

At one of the locations where the earlier warnings had stood, someone appeared to have altered the sign to remove the travel warning.  A space that previously held a warning against travel presented in bright red letters is now blank.

Next the KGUN9 News crew traveled to another sign location where the newest signs were supposed to stand, but found only the framework to hold the sign. 

When BLM announced the new signs in late October -- just days before the election -- it issued a press release saying that "Overall, illegal activity related to the U.S.-Mexico border has decreased in the past year," while at the same time acknowledging what it called "localized incidents" in Pinal County's desert areas.   Simultaneously, BLM announced that it was "working with other agencies to enhance communication and beef up law enforcement operations."

So does this mean travelers don't have to be so concerned after all?  In a statement to KGUN9 News, a BLM spokesperson explained further, saying, "Conditions on the ground show that cartel-related violence and smuggling activity has been reduced and the public is less likely to encounter safety issues related to illegal activities while recreating on public lands in this area."

But the local law enforcement agency in Pinal County is saying just the opposite.   Is there a disconnect here?

Stewart has his own opinion on why the signs vanished or were changed.

"Probably because they feel like they were instilling fear with the other one, and rightfully so," Stewart said.  "When you come across the desert all you see is car tracks in every direction, (in) the washes there are car parts, backpacks, water bottles, and piece of trash that a human might need, which was once something useful across the desert. It's out there."

When contacted by KGUN9 News, the Bureau of Land Management would not elaborate on what happened to the new sign that is missing--or was never installed-- on Vekol Road in Pinal County.

Stewart, an avid pilot, took KGUN9 News photojournalist Alfonso Sahagun up for a birds-eye vantage point of the tracks left on the desert landscape by the smugglers.  He asked Stewart how he felt flying over the roads, knowing that drug dealers were using them at night.

"It makes me angry that they trash our country," Stewart replied.

Stewart is among those who believe that a different kind of sign -- among them, dirt trails carved out in the night by human and drug smugglers -- tells the true story of what is really going on in the desert.